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The magic is back at Bristol

Jeff Birchfield • Aug 19, 2019 at 12:38 AM

BRISTOL, Tenn. — It won’t go down as the greatest finish in Bristol Motor Speedway history. It won’t go down as the biggest upset in track history, either.

However, Denny Hamlin’s stirring comeback to beat Matt DiBenedetto for the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race win Saturday was another highly entertaining race at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.” It had most everything a race fan could ask for.

The BMS staff has been applying the PJ1 traction compound to the lower groove of the turns since 2016, and the track has produced the old-school style racing that fans had previously longed for.

There’s always the kaleidoscope of colorful race cars zipping around the high-banked short track at an average speed of 123 mph. Improved racing and high stakes almost guarantees the fender-bumping, paint-swapping, sheet metal-trading action Bristol is known for.

With Saturday’s race in front of an estimated crowd of about 100,000 fans under the lights of a warm Tennessee night, the potential was there for the ultimate Cinderella story.

A year earlier, DiBenedetto left his ride with the GoFas Racing team to “bet on himself,” as he explained it. The move paid off when DiBenedetto got a ride with the mid-level Leavine Family Racing team that has an alliance with powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing — Hamlin’s team.

And Hamlin’s former crew chief, Mike Wheeler, serves as the crew chief for the No. 95 DiBenedetto drives. Still, their entry has nowhere near the funding of Hamlin’s No. 11 car.

Upping the stakes was that DiBenedetto found out just days earlier that he’s to be replaced in the 95 after the season. The move will likely result in Xfinity Series star Christopher Bell being promoted to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

DiBenedetto was emotional after such a tough week and losing the race in such a dramatic fashion, and the race’s winner had plenty of empathy.

“I’m so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and Mike Wheeler. I hate it,” Hamlin said. “It is a tough business at times. Matt is doing a phenomenal job of showing his talent. A lot of people believe in Matt and he’s been clawing and clawing the last few years.”

Clint Bowyer, whose playoff chances would have suffered with a victory by the No. 95, also felt bad for DiBenedetto, a 28-year-old California native who moved to Hickory, North Carolina, as a teenager to pursue a racing career.

“I hate it for that guy. He’s racing for a job and everything else,” Bowyer said.

Though fans were denied the storybook ending, they were treated to an exciting rally by Hamlin, who came from a lap down to win. He benefited when his team decided to get tires on a late pit stop when others stayed out for track position. It was his fourth win of the season and his second in Bristol’s night race.

DiBenedetto felt his car would have been strong enough to hold off Hamlin if not for late-race contact with Ryan Newman, who was trying to stay on the lead lap. We’ll never know if that was the case with Hamlin’s car having newer tires.

What we do know was the race featured 23 lead changes among 10 drivers. The leaders included usual favorites like Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson, who is still looking for a first Bristol win.

Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular driver, even had a 33-lap stint out front and stayed in contention throughout the race.

There also were different leaders, plenty of competitive racing and a number of multicar crashes in the Xfinity and truck series races. While there wasn’t the famous finish of Dale Earnhardt “rattling the cage” of Terry Labonte from 20 years earlier, it was a captivating weekend of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway.